To some it is the need to escape for a while from the gloominess of winter and the increasing difficulties of everyday life. Others see it as a spiritual uplifting occasion and a return to philanthropy. For Greeks nowadays exceeding consumerism has certainly given way to more need for celebrating togetherness during the most popular wintertime holidays…
Peek over our wintertime festivities, and welcome to party with us!
How long do the festivities last?
No one knows! Nobody in Greece likes a holiday that lasts for just one day. To start with, the official wintertime holiday season is called “Dodekaimero” (12 Days). Three main dates are celebrated: Christmas Day (December 25th), New Year’s Day (January 1st) and “Theofania” (Epiphany, January 6th). These 3 are public holidays …but kids are especially ecstatic as they get a 15-day off-school.
But there’s more to this; in the whole of wintertime the most popular Greek name days occur in the calendar, which correspond to particular saints commemorated on that given day. Greeks who are by custom named after some saint are expected to celebrate exactly as if it were their birthday – or even more. Usually, there is an open house for friends and family, or a party, or an evening out…whatever the person choses. Boring winter becomes festively dotted with this or the other celebration of very popular names, such as Dimitris (m)/Dimitra (fem) on October 26th which “marks the start of the winter”…Andreas/Andrianna) on Novermber 30th which “marks the start of holiday preparations”…
Name days go on throughout the year, even though not as close to each other as in the winter.
The problem with the 12 days of Christmas
There’s just one catch: be careful especially around a fire or stove. Some demonic creatures (Kalikantzari) have worked their way upwards from the dark underworld where they had been sawing the Tree of Life that holds the World in place…Now they can finally appear in the open, doing all sorts of mischief, messing up when you’re not looking! Revenge comes on the end of the 12 Days; that’s Epiphany (Baptism of Jesus) or the day that waters “turn holy”. So if you see any of these black hairy creatures, just sprinkle water over them. The effect is the opposite than that of the Gremlins: they disappear – problem solved!
Treats of the season
In any home you’ll get a treat. In bakeries and pastry shops windows you’ll see them ornate and inviting. They slightly vary according to region, but basically the same sweets appear everywhere around the 12 Days season.
Melomakarona: olive-oil based, spiced and “honeyed macaroons”, covered in (and sometimes filled with) crushed walnuts.
Kourabiedes: crumbly buttery almond cookies covered in icing sugar, with an orange-blossom water and vanilla flavor.
Diples: crunchy and airy dough, deep-fried in olive oil, dipped in honey, covered with crushed walnuts and sesame seeds.
Vasilopita: a cake of which there are two kinds:
a) the “tsoureki” type (yeast dough, flavored with mahlep and mastic) originating in Istanbul and
b) the almond & lemon rind flavored sponge cake type, with distant links to northern Italy.
Both are delicious.
Morning merry melodies
On the eves of the 3 main holidays, doorbells are rung early morning by kids singing carols (kalanda), different songs for each day. They sing from door to door, ringing metallic triangles in exchange of a seasonal sweet treat or a small tip. “Kalanda” by Greek painter Nikiforos Lytras, 1872
There are standard kalanda sung in the cities but regional ones (and accompanying instruments) vary considerably. If the kids sing off-key (rather common) or have woken us up too early, we try to be patient and let them finish the song – it only lasts for a minute! No matter the performance quality at the end of all carols we get their wish for “Ke tou hronou” (be well “Till Next Year”). And we always wish “Hronia Polla” (may you live “Many Years”).
Kalanda are also heard in the streets sung by groups of kids or grownups.
New Year’s Eve Carols (standard)
New Year’s Day is the only non-religious holiday during the 12 Days season but it is culturally and socially the most important one.
As for Christmas, the birth of Jesus is commemorated and that’s it – an important spiritual holiday equal to a few others in the orthodox tradition. It is not the most important one of the year (that’s Easter, in springtime). Even the religious won’t commonly go to church for the Christmas service (which is at 5 in the morning!). People do not exchange gifts for Christmas.
Yet there’s a lot of cultural fusion surrounding these holidays, as maybe expected. Everyone knows (or at least suspects!) that “Jingle Bells”, slays with reindeer, life-size replicas of the nativity scene in town squares, lit-up Christmas trees, hot spiced wine, stuffed turkey, artificial ice-skating rings etc are imported from various western/northern peoples who celebrate Christmas as their most important year-round holiday. Surely though you’ll see a lot of this stuff around all over Greece and everyone is familiarized with it.
Sometimes by turning a foreign custom around for some extra fun, as in this version of Jingle Bells, Greek style…
The pre-independence Greek diaspora had grown familiar with western-style Christmas for a long time. Modern Greece itself has adopted much of it as early as the 1830’s, when a Bavarian prince with a powerful entourage of Bavarian governors settled in to become the first king in the modern state. About a century later (1924) the “old” (Julian) orthodox calendar used since byzantine times was replaced with the “new” (Gregorian) one, so all religious holidays except Easter are celebrated 13 days earlier– so Christmas is not anymore on January 7th.
A “Christmas village” in Athens
But quite a few countries such as our northern neighbours follow the older calendar. In this case well…most welcome to celebrate twice – as mentioned above, it is perfectly understood that the more fiestas the better! There is a bonus: anyone called (any equivalent of) John or Joanna will certainly receive a special wish and even a present… January 7th is a big-big day of celebration for this extraordinarily common name in Greece. High probability some “Yiannis” or some “Yianna” will be around to party.
More local particularities
A Christmas tree is decorated everywhere but people also often decorate the more traditional branches of ever-green trees or bushes (inland regions) or impressive replicas of sail boats (coastal regions and islands). Mini sail boat models can also be seen carried around by carols singers.
If Greeks tell you there is no Santa Claus, don’t worry. There is simply another Saint for this sort of thing! He is called Saint Basil (Ayos Vasilis) and every New Year’s Day comes from Caesarea (the city in Turkey, known to contain no reindeer). Most importantly, he brings presents to kids and grownups, either good or bad (or so we like to believe)! New Year’s is indeed the day for gift-exchange.
The original saint Basil looks like any other in byzantine art but he is casually depicted as an American Santa. And yes, “Rudolf the red-nosed reindeer” is sung in Greek but translated as a “deer”…!
And of course January 1st is a name day for the ones named Vasilis (m) or Vasiliki/Viki/Vaso(fem). Probably the most mistreated name ever, as they just get one present instead of two!
What about that much advertised special moment of New Year’s Eve midnight- switch to New Year’s Day? Nowadays municipal authorities light up fireworks or organize some concert but until recently none of this was going on – not at all. People welcome the New Year usually in homes opening a bubbly wine, then they might choose such (or other) outdoor partying. But, as tradition demands… they are also supposed to induce in gambling with “Black Jack” till the dawn breaks. If you win, you are the lucky one. If you lose, they’ll tell you that “You win in Love”.
If a most probable hangover is avoided, we might get to remember that New Year’s morning was (once upon a time) welcomed by the crashing of a pomegranate on the doorstep of homes. Still today it’s the winter fruit that most symbolizes the New Year, a symbol of plenty and a promise of the Earth’s regeneration.
Piece of cake for the “foreigner/ guest”
The highlight of the New Year’s meal is really the dessert: Vasilopita (St Basil’s cake). It is baked with a coin hidden in it, so getting the slice with the coin means you’ll be the lucky one for the year. Either you are present or not, every family will cut a slice “for the foreigner/guest”. So if you are a foreigner and plan to stay abroad, please take the first plane to Greece and eat the slice you deserve! (or have them send you the coin)
The cutting of Vasilopita is a big deal and can be an entire buffet event on a work day shortly after New Year’s at the workplace or at headquarters of various associations. The lucky coin usually corresponds to a gift, commonly a lucky charm for the particular year (“gouri”).
Frozen water dip
On January 6th waters tend to be rather icy. The Jordan river (where the original baptism took place) is too far. Shops are closed, nothing special is organized at home but if you are the outdoors type you can witness a most peculiar sight: men (and some women) in swimsuits dive in the waters (sea, rivers, lakes, cisterns, even modern urban tank reserves such as in central Athens) in an attempt to catch a smallish cross thrown in the water by a priest. The one who catches the cross gets a blessing.
Theofania in Piraeus
Alternatively, you can watch the whole affair as it happens all over Greece, live on TV. For the media it is a national gossip opportunity (who and where and what happened in the end).
And yes, you could have guessed it easily by now: this is also a person’s name-day. Fotis (m) Fotini (fem), Ourania/Rania (fem), Iordanis (m), Theofanis/Fanis (m), Theofano/Fani (fem)…The party’s never over, that’s all I’m saying …
In fact, you could literally translate our seasonal wish as:
Kales Yortes! Happy Feasts!